American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious

I am sorry to tell you that this will be my last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, and I want to … Continued

I am sorry to tell you that this will be my last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, and I want to thank all of you who have followed my essays, including many who have taken the trouble to write me lengthy personal letters on my author Web site. Although I will continue to write occasionally on issues of unusual importance, a weekly column diverts too much time from the research for my next book, to be titled, “Conversions: A Secular History.”

In the new book, I will be examining the full range of historical and personal factors influencing ostensibly religious conversions, from that old favorite, the threat of execution, to marrying a third wife who happens to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant. For the former, see under: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; for the latter, under: Gingrich, Newt.

Looking back on my five years as a contributor to “On Faith,” I see a great paradox in the progress of American secularism: The numbers and visibility of atheists and secularists in the United States have increased but their political and social influence has not.

The large audience for the writings of atheists, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has led many American pundits, preachers and politicians to exaggerate the influence of secular thought in the culture as a whole. I only wish they were right. For the warriors of the Christian right, in particular, this exaggeration serves the purpose of presenting themselves as victims in a nation where they in fact wield a power that they do not enjoy anywhere else in the developed world.

For a true measure of the limited influence exerted by atheism on popular culture, one need only turn to the closing bestseller lists for 2011. Leading the “nonfiction” New York Times paperback bestseller list (having been on the list for 56 weeks) is “Heaven Is for Real,” written by the minister-father of a 4-year-old boy who supposedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and saw Jesus (“he had the brightest blue eyes”) and his baby sister, who was actually never born into this world because his mother suffered a miscarriage. This book is also No. 4 on the bestseller list of picture books for small children.

Guess what does not appear on any year-end Times bestseller list? Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” an enchanting work which explains the origins of life to children in a non-didactic way that places religious myth in the context of the long human struggle to understand how we came to be, is nowhere to be found.

The point is that there is a much larger American audience for childish (in this instance, literally so) supernatural fantasies, which should no more be classified as nonfiction than Grimm’s fairy tales, than there is for any book that attempts to present the world as it is to the next generation. That 15 to 20 percent of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church does not replace the default position occupied in American political and cultural life by religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Even more important, the most potent religious influence on American politics is exercised by those on the far religious right, who — while they represent only a minority of all believers — are backed by huge amounts of money and organizational muscle. I have written many times in this column about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement, and indeed for liberal religious organizations committed to upholding secular government, to translate their values into real social and political influence.

I have also observed that secularists, unlike the religious right, do not always have the same political values. There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century. The problem for the secular right is that politicians who share its anti-government views are also committed to far-right religion. But the split between the humanists and the neo-social Darwinists is a serious problem for the secular movement as a whole, because the two groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to support the same candidates.

But there is another, much more important difficulty in the secular struggle to alter default assumptions about religion. Since the 1980s, the far right, especially the religious right, has been masterful at taking control of public language in a way that always places secularism and secular liberalism on the defensive.

First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label, as evinced by the current efforts of those fighting abortion restrictions to characterize themselves as “the real pro-lifers.” Once you start trying to appropriate the meaning of your opponents’ already twisted labels, you’re already halfway to losing whatever battle you’re fighting.

Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism.

Now the same people are trying to take control of the term “religious liberty” and redefine it to mean the freedom of religious groups to accept government money but spend it only on providing services that have their particular faith imprimatur..

At an October hearing, titled “Religious Liberty in the United States,” largely ignored by the mainstream media, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, asserted that religious freedom is under attack in America as it has never been in the past.

What Franks actually means by “religious freedom” is the liberty of religion to spend government money as it pleases. He is right, however, that this was never an issue on a national level in the past, because for most of the nation’s existence, the federal government never made the grievous error of giving money for secular purposes to faith-based organizations.

A parade of right-wing evangelical Protestants and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified at the hearings against all attempts by the Obama administration to attach government regulations to taxpayer money. In this view, the administration is waging “war on Christianity” by, for example, mandating that providers with U.S. government contracts offer a “full range of reproductive services” to sex-trafficking victims in the United States and around the world. The church wants to help pregnant girls forced into prostitution by forcing them to have their abusers’ babies.

Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty formed by the bishops’ conference, attacked provisions of the new domestic health care law that impose any government mandates on religious health providers.

Note, again, the use of the term “religious liberty” to mean liberty for religious institutions to impose their values with taxpayer money. In practical terms, what Bishop Lori means is that when a rape victim walks into a government-funded Catholic emergency clinic, the clinic can not only refuse to offer the morning-after pill to protect her against pregnancy but can even fail to tell her about the existence of such a pill or to refer her to a nonsectarian institution that does provide such services.

The belief that religious institutions have the right to feed at the government trough while rejecting any government rules is the glue of the lobbying alliance between the Catholic bishops and right-wing evangelical Protestant leaders — an odd coupling that has never before existed in American history.

The only person at the hearing to point out that this redefinition of religious liberty is actually a demand for “special government blessings for those in favored faiths, and conversely, the treatment of members of other faiths as second-class citizens” was Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Nothing could be further from religious liberty as originally conceived by both the secularists and the people of liberal religion (mainly Baptists, liberal Congregationalists on the road to Unitarianism, and Quakers) who wrote the founding documents for this nation. All of these religious believers would have been horrified at the idea of accepting government money to underwrite their beliefs. That is why they joined with freethinkers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to pass the the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The first state law to officially draw a line between government and religious institutions was written when religious conservatives in Virginia attempted to tax citizens for Christian teaching in public schools. This act would become the template for the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

What religious liberty has traditionally meant in the United States is the right of all to believe and proselytize as they wish without government interference or favoritism. It also means the right of minority religions and of those who do not believe in any religion to be free from harassment by a state-favored religious majority.

Language distortion bolsters every aspect of religion as the default position. Twenty years ago, I could be reasonably sure, if I opened a fundraising appeal mentioning religious liberty on the envelope, that the notice came from a group like Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the ACLU. Now such appeals come from the likes of Focus on the Family and the Catholic hierarchy. They have no shame, and they want religious liberty only for themselves.

If secularists are to succeed in making any inroads on the default position of religion, they must reclaim the original definition of religious liberty, as exemplified by those who passed Virginia’s 1786 law.

There is another related, equally important task for the secular movement today. We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. This misguided but, again, ideologically useful portrait of atheists appeared frequently in the patronizing eulogies for Christopher Hitchens offered by religious believers who had fallen under the spell of his voice and his prose. Ross Douthaut, writing in the Times, argued that “many Christian readers felt that in Hichens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible…surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.”

This is the sort of mindless obeisance to received opinion propagated by the missionaries for religion as the default position. Confronted by an atheist who does not fit their stereotype, their conclusion is not that the stereotype is awry but that the atheist, deep down, must not really be a true atheist. Because everyone knows that atheists are bloodless elitists (never honest Christian folk) who substitute science with a capital “S” for God with a capital “G.”

One reason why believers couldn’t quite dismiss Hitchens was that he did write and speak with the language of passion and emotion, as Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” did in the 19th century and Thomas Paine in the 18th. I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.

I will close this column on the same note that I ended my book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” in which I quoted Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles onto a place of shelter:

Poor naked wretches, wereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just.

Yes, let us talk about showing the heavens more just. This is the essence of humanist secularism and humanist atheism and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. It is also time to revive the evocative and honorable word “freethinker,” with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on default opinion. The combination of “free” and “thought” embodies every ideal that secularists hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.

Susan Jacoby
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  • thebump

    All of these religious believers would have been horrified at the idea of accepting government money to underwrite their beliefs.

    Actually, they would have been horrified at the idea of accepting government money, period. And of course, this is the fundamental incongruity of the authoress’s big-government ideology: She’s all for maximal political meddling in furtherance of her own values, but is shocked, shocked that other taxpayers likewise expect to have their say about these matters. How dare they! Who do they think they are?

    The only practicable way to achieve the degree of disentanglement that the authoress says she favors is to limit the scope of government action in the first place.

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More Comments

    For Susan’s new book and the chapter on Islam:

    What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? And what drives today’s 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror? The koran, Mohammed’s book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein. Until then, no Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere…………………………….

  • thebump

    “religious conservatives in Virginia attempted to tax citizens for Christian teaching in public schools”

    This is a misleading characterization. First, there was of course no public school system as we think of it. Second, the tax provided subsidies for ministers and places of worship; it had nothing to do with imposing religious instruction on unwilling students or those of another faith. Third, the law was non-sectarian (the taxpayer designated the denomination to receive his tax). It was not imposed by “conservatives” but rather was also supported by dissenting sects.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    Completely wrong. Certainly there was no public school system as we think of it. They were called “common schools,” and the proposal by Parick Henry was designed to finance Christian teaching in those schools, which the revolutionary generation expected to develop under independence. The idea that this law would have been “non-sectarian” is comical. It would have allotted money only for Christian teaching. It is amazing, when one thinks about it, that this proposal was rejected in Virginia at a time when nearly everyone was, in fact, a Christian–and a Protestant. Of course, these facts don’t fit with the right-wing fairytales (I call them horrror stories) about the founders as devout Christians.

  • thebump

    Again, ahistorical and misleading. The bill put dissent sects on an equal footing with the Church of England. It explicitly prohibited “all distinctions of pre-eminence amongst the different societies or communities of Christians.” The taxpayer designated the “society or community” to receive his tax. As you acknowledge, this scheme accommodated “nearly everyone.” By contemporary standards, that’s radically non-sectarian.

    Moreover, in light of this scrupulous neutrality, it is absurd to claim that the bill’s intent was to impose sectarian religious instruction contrary to one’s beliefs.

    The term “common school” was not coined until the 19th Century. When this bill was considered few if any Virginians attended anything remotely analogous to a government school.

  • ThomasBaum


    On your post of 6:22 AM you wrote, “Hence, as the Scriptures in Genesis 1cf. reads, God looked upon the things He created and it was good.”

    Have you ever given a thought to why God said, “It is good”?

    Have you ever thought that “It is good” for the simple reason that it is part of God’s Plan that is, ultimately, for ALL?

    Remember, it is written, “WHEN I AM LIFTED UP, I WILL DRAW EVERYONE TO MYSELF”.

    This statement is not loaded down with details but it is most definitely loaded down with God letting us know that God’s Plan is most inclusive.

    It is sad that so many don’t seem to care as long as they get to the “good place”, mighty CHRISTIAN of them, don’t you think?

    See you and the rest of humanity in the Kingdom.

    Take care, be ready.

    Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • persiflage

    Susan, the loss of your unique voice will leave a large, empty space On Faith. You always provoked some of the most creative, impassioned exchanges ever seen around these parts, and like clockwork the good ones always came back for more. Thanks again for the last 5 years.

  • persiflage

    ‘There is no parallel in respect to the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ birth was announced by Angels. A Star marked His birth and led the Three Kings to His birth place. Jesus and His Mother were the only people born into the world after Adam & Eve without Original Sin…’

    Strange as it seems, without mythology humans would never have been challenged to move beyond it, to more rational realms.

    As Jung might say, archetypes come and go, but never disappear altogether…….as I’ve recently discovered to be the case with certain viruses.

  • persiflage

    How desperate the true believer – arguing about God on an atheist blog, when there’s an ocean of belief to swim in elsewhere.

    What to be – a frog in a small pond or a fish in a very large sea?

  • persiflage

    ‘Evidently, Jung recognizing this request for eternal happiness, he concluded that there is a reality outside the material Universe and it’s not a myth.’

    Carl Jung was a great savant of the human psyche, and believed he had opened a door to a deeper and more primordial part of the mind. He has been called a modern-day Gnostic, but had no affiliations with exoteric religious beliefs of any kind. He didn’t know if human consciousness survived death in some form, but thought it possible.

    In fact, he stated that Christianity’s primary short-coming was it’s lack of a feminine side to God, symbolically speaking. This was a mistake that the Gnostics had not made, with their devotion to Sophia, a feminine manifestation of the uncreated Pleroma. The Gnostics were persecuted as heretics for centuries by orthodox Christians.

    He believed that the collective unconscious was a part of human nature that served as a vast storehouse of symbols and archetypes that surfaced in the conscious mind periodically – either in individuals or in closely affiliated groups of people at certain points in time.

    These archetypes and symbols became the essential building blocks of religious myth, with it’s legends, heroic expoits, death and re-birth, avatars, devils and demons, and all the rest – the battle between good and evil in a rarified atmosphere beyond time. In this creative way, man came to understood his place in the world through his ability to project a mythic overlay on everyday life.

    Obviously he was looking at origins, and like Plato, believed that certain psychological and pre-existing archetypal traits were inherent in humans at birth.

    HIs knowledge of the history of religions was fairly encylopedic with particular attention to the mystical or esoteric schools of practice. In other words, he believed that the fundamental elements of religion originated in the human mind as a basic drive that typically flat-lined in organized religion – which took believers absolutely no

  • persiflage

    ‘ For public schools to be strictly secular is to deny the student of his spiritual nature.nature.’

    Of course anything else would be a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Constitution. Spiritual and/or religious instruction have no place in public education.

    In my view (and Daniel Dennett’s) the single exception would be comparative religious studies at the high school level – which would provide an introductory historical overview of religion as a social/cultural institution.

    This would perforce cover a range of religious traditions, from primitive to modern forms. This would require of the instructor both a scholarly familiarity with a variety of religions and a teaching methodology that valued objectivity as a pre-requisite, in order for students to obtain real benefit.

    As for private schools, 8 years of Catholic education did nothing memorable for me, other than provide a source of blessed relief when I finally transferred to a public school.

  • Jihadist

    Ms. Jacoby,

    “Conversions : A Secular History” as a book in the works?

    Perhaps someone else should write a book, “Conversations between Believers and Atheists – A Botched History”.

    I am still a Muslim believer in God after all that was, is said and written about delusions about God, evil of religion, religion poisoning everything, stupidity and irrationality of religionists etc by the more excitable, passionate, emotional and emotive atheists.

    My very best to you for this new year Ms. Jacoby. I will miss your passion and emotion with reason in striving for the Right Path on issues which I read in your columns here in On Faith.

    Yours sincerely,

  • ThomasBaum


    “no one wins if they go to Hell”

    Jesus went to hell and He went to hell for all of His creation.

    Jesus was God before He became God-Incarnate (Son of God and Son of man), the second Person of the Trinity, and Jesus became the Son of God and the Son of man when Mary said YES, God becoming part of God’s creation is just part of God’s Plan that is for ALL, one could say that God has all of the bases covered.

    “The captives shall be released (those in hell) and the dead shall rise”.

    Jesus went to hell and death (both physical and spiritual) and in doing so won the “keys” to both and will use them in due time, God’s Time.

    Jesus “won” by going to hell and He went to hell by voluntarily taking upon Himself ALL of the sins of ALL of humanity upon Himself.

    Doesn’t the Catholic Church teach that Jesus took All of the sins of All of humanity upon Himself?

    Doesn’t it say that the “wages” of sin is death?

    Jesus took our “wages” and turn it all around.

    God’s Plan is something to be thankful for and I, for one, thank God that God came up with an all-inclusive Plan.

    One day ALL will be thankful for God’s Plan but for now, as we see thru a glass darkly, many are blind to God’s Plan.

  • ThomasBaum

    I would suppose that “what to be” is to be what one is.

    Does the frog in a small pond get to choose to be a fish in a very large ocean or vice versa?

    I did not choose to be a messenger but I did choose to say YES.

    Anyone and everyone should be allowed, even encouraged, to speak where they are rather than where others think they should speak, don’t you think so?

  • James210

    I haven’t been in a bar fight in awhile? none of my buiness so, i’ll just watch.
    we got,
    Floggers at 2, and a foul content on going for the hard deck? age and treachery?
    there is still a few tricks in this old man? and the witch doesn’t fight fair so, all be forwarned?

    back to business at hand
    One moment , its how can one save the world and lose their soul , in the process and, the next it’s criticism for serving one self? go figure.

    Row well 41 and you shall live or, you live to serve this ship?

    1. Literature
    2. music

  • persiflage

    James, how are they treating you in Turkey these days? Have a Happy New Year!!

  • persiflage

    ‘The error of many scientists is that they are schooled in one discipline and think themselves an expert in another under the auspices of what they specialize in.’

    And yet, in the modern age, we’re well advised to trust what science says over and against what doctrinaire theologians and antiquated theology tell us is true – actually swearing it on the Bible…….one of man’s largest collections of fables, legends, half-truths, second and third-hand reports, and totally made up stuff – between two covers.

    And that doesn’t even begin to address the Catholic Church with it’s all-male absolutist oligarchy, inflexible dogma, and doctrinal fabrications that actually drove Martin Luther back to the Bible and the Protestant Reformation – in effect, seeking refuge from one set of authoritarian fictions in yet another equally fictitious compilation of made-up events, culminating in a patently false history.

    No wonder Christians are reluctant to take a second look at the origins of their beliefs with an objective eye. Scholars of comparative religious history are unable to retain their pre-conceived notions about religious ‘truth’ quite so easily. Few indeed are literalists in any sense of the word, when it comes to the world of religious beliefs.

    They see the origins of religion quite clearly, and they are indeed made by man – each and every one.

  • JohninMpls

    Susan, I will miss your blog entries. I cannot say the same for the comments section, however.

    I await the release of your next book.

  • ThomasBaum


    Simple question: Do you believe that Jesus took ALL of the sins (past, present, future) of All of humanity upon Himself when He went to the cross”.

    A simple yes or no can answer this simple question and as you should know the Catholic Church does teach that Jesus did this.

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